Kuala Lumpur- It was an 11th hour U-turn that has displeased many Malaysians and left thegovernmentopen to charges of flip-flopping.But thedecision to delay a long-delayed crackdown on illegal immigrantssays much about the government's determination topreserve its good relations withIndonesia- even if it meanscausing astir at home.
TheCabinetdecided to extend a three-month amnesty for illegal workers, which expired at midnight on Jan 31, after receiving a written request from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono,Malaysian Home Minister Azmi Khalid told a new conference on Feb 2.
In his letter, Mr Yudhoyono had requestedforMalaysiato delay yet again in enforcing the law against illegal immigrants, citing the fallout from the Dec 26 tsunami which has turned Aceh into a disaster zone.
Indonesians make upmost of the illegal immigrants inMalaysiaand many of them hail from Aceh.
"It may appear to most Malaysians that we have backtracked but we must put ourselves inIndonesia's shoes.Imagine if our country was struck by a huge disasterand within a month, our fellow citizens were treated badly in another country, how would we feel?," Mr Azmi said.
He added that the Philippine government had also asked for an extension of the amnesty, which started last October and was extended twice, in mid-November and at the end of December.
The extension of the amnesty this time round means that illegal immigrants who are still inMalaysiawill not face immediate deportation.
Instead, under "Operation Advice",the illegals would only be given a warning, have their details taken down and urged to leave the country. Details of their employers would also be noted.
If caught a second time, they would be immediately deported and barred from enteringMalaysiaagain - even for a visit.
The government will decide on a new deadline and after this, illegals who remain defiant will be subjected to tough immigration laws, including whipping.
Deputy Prime MinisterNajib Razakdismissedthe suggestion that the governmentwas guilty of a flip-flop in its amnesty programme.
"It is just that we are adopting a softer approach to get them to go back. Itis only right that we, as a neighbour, show some sympathetic consideration toIndonesiawhich is now in difficultydue to the tsunami," he said.
Mr Azmi acknowledged that the extension of the amnesty would not be popular among the Malaysian public "because they would like us to take a more drastic approach”.
Illegal immigrants have often been blamed inMalaysiafor crime, taking jobs from locals and the creation of squatter settlements.
The country currently has an estimated 800,00 illegal immigrants .
As a comentator in The Star puts it: "The crackdown has the support of most Malaysians because we believe the country has too many illegals. We have had to put up with many social problems for too long."
It is not often that a government is willing to risk a domestic backlash for the sake of preserving relations with another country.Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – who has often riled his Asean neighbours with remarks aimed at scoring political points at home - may want to take a leaf on regional co-operation fromMalaysia's book.
* Explain delay in crackdown (The Star, Feb 2)
*Velvet glove mode (New Straits Times, Feb 3)
* Malaysian dilemma over illegals (The Straits Times, Feb 3)